Gender in Writing: Is it She or He Who Tells Your Story?
A guest post by S.J. Higbee.
One of the issues you will have to confront very early on in your writing is that of gender. Are you capable of writing a leading character of the opposite sex? Nowadays, bear in mind your protagonist will be the lens through which we will be viewing your story. If your protagonist doesn’t come across as realistic, you risk undermining the whole project.
This is a highly personal choice, of course. There is no definitive answer – try writing in the point of view (POV) of the opposite sex and see how you get on. It also makes a difference as to just how much of the story you entrust to one character. You may feel relaxed writing a piece of flash fiction as a viewpoint character of the opposite sex, while deciding against using that protagonist in a longer piece of work.
One of the other main considerations should be whether you are writing in first person (I) or third person (you) viewpoint. The increased intimacy and immediacy of the first person POV may make writing a character of the opposite sex more challenging than if you decide to write in third person POV. While I’ve read plenty about story structure and flow influencing your choice of POV characters, I haven’t seen much about choosing which gender you write in – and I think it is equally valid.
I’m very aware that in listing the characteristics below, I’m wading up to my chin into some murky waters along the lines that I’m pandering to some basic sexist stereotypical behaviour. I’ll emphasise that these observations are NOT my personal views on men or women, but a list I’ve drawn from reading a variety of sources – mostly other authors.
Tips for Women Writing Men
- Be aware that ego and face-saving plays a key role in a lot of male behaviour – which often leads them into saying/doing things when with their friends/peers that on reflection, they probably wouldn’t if alone. This PARTICULARLY applies if your male protagonist is under 25.
- Leading from the above observation, don’t under-estimate how rough male humour can be – particularly with work colleagues doing a physical job. Someone falls off a horse/nicks himself with his sword or knife, his friend/s are likely to be doubled up with laughter, once it’s established the mishap isn’t life-threatening. And sometimes, when it is….
- Problem solving is important. If your protagonist is imprisoned, he’s more likely to spend a significant slice of time looking for a way to escape – before reflecting about love of his life, for instance.
- A visual image is likely to stay in a man’s head. Not that he’ll necessarily be concentrating on exactly what his lady was wearing, rather what was going on under that purplish dress with the lacy thingy around her cleavage….
- It’s not true that men don’t have an emotional inner life – but they are more capable of compartmentalising the different aspects of their existence than women. By all means have him haunted by what his dad did to his mum, but also have him angry and confused when these memories break into his everyday life.
- Men do have feelings – but they are far more wary about discussing them and are likely to retreat into humour or get defensive when the women in their lives start probing.
Authors who write effective men – Bernard Cornwall, Ian Rankin, Ian McEwan.
Tips for Men Writing Women
- If your heroine is performing some technical task, don’t let her get too immersed in the practicalities of it. While she’s working, she’ll be letting her mind range elsewhere – it’s what women do….
- Women have edges, too. They might not always say the crass, sarky comment – but it’s likely they’re thinking it. Take care not to write your female characters as too agreeable or obliging – particularly if they are under 25.
- If you are going into any kind of flashback or internal musing with your heroine (and you’d better, or she won’t ring true), be aware that smells and taste are more powerful triggers for women than men.
- If you want to depict a damaged, stunted female character, then write her as relatively unfeeling or shut off from her emotions. However, in general, a woman’s emotional landscape is vital to her. Ensure you write it into her character.
- Be VERY careful writing a female character who has suffered some sort of sexual assault or rape. Don’t fall into the trap of treating it like any other type of assault – it isn’t and women often don’t bounce back from that kind of attack without professional help. If your heroine is in a dangerous situation where she may be at risk of sexual assault, ensure she is sufficiently afraid. Whatever you do, DON’T have her enjoying being raped… and – yes – I have read a m/s where the male author did just that.
- Unless she’s sublimely confident, when the man in your heroine’s life compliments her, I’d have her slightly overthinking it… eg, ‘You’re looking lovely, tonight,’ he comments.
‘Thank you,’ she replies. So… where did I go wrong last night, then?
Authors who write effective women – Susan Hill, Sue Grafton, Kate Atkinson.